Chapter 13

Raw Gums was a baby born of a baby.

The village hadn’t thought her old enough to get her menses, much less old enough to welcome the swell of womb beneath her dress. She didn’t speak much, quiet and obedient, meek. She was usually half-hidden in her wigwam behind her mother’s skirt or washtub or diligently snapping bean after bean. Her long hair was unbraided and heavy, drawn past her brow like a shade. The neighbors didn’t try to see into her eyes. They were content to gather and glance and whisper.

The night of his birth they gathered. They waited with ugly disinterest, Such a tiny child. Such a big belly. Even the more robust of their women had been taken in childbirth, and this one: faint of soul, timid, weak-hipped. They assembled the accoutrement of celebration under the cover of the women’s work area. They worked together in solemn silence as the rains pattered the bark roof, each quietly thinking they may instead need the accoutrement of mourning.

     The infant came into this world with a stillness, a silence. No cries, no movements. He slipped from between the Child-Mother’s legs in a cascade of fluids, blood and mucus. The infant was coated in a film of thick grey goop, and around them the blood was abundant. The fluids combined against his newborn skin, casting an unnatural red on the child, a glow in the ooze that even in the dim light of fading day looked squint-bright.

     When her baby didn’t cry, the child reached for him, her own consciousness slipping as too much of her leaked to the forest floor.

“Awaken,” she plead through the clenched teeth, her tiny body quaking with violent shivers beneath the layers and layers of blankets the elders had piled on. She held his tiny cheeks—“Awaken”—swatting his behind and praying. And when his eyes opened and looked at her, silent and expectant, no cries, no cries at all, but alive, oh yes, alive! She looked at the elders, what to do now? And they gestured to hold him to her bosom, so she moved aside the wrap of birthing dress to press his lips against tiny teat. But when he opened his mouth, a river of blood poured out, dark and red and clotted. He coughed, and the girl instinctively used her index finger to hook though and clear his mouth. When she did, he screamed a scream of so much pain, opening his mouth so wide it appeared almost unhinged. Through the blood she could see tissue, raw and dangling, as if her finger had been arrow-sharp.

“Raw gums,” she said. “It’s raw gums.”

*

Miss Gertrude woke Clara from her nap, dragging an IV through the hallways of The Home, making the trademark clicking sound with her tongue. Click, clack, click. Rumor had it that they were actual words in the Morse code she’d learned in the war. Dot-dash-dot. Dash-dash-dot. Click, clack, click. Clack, clack, click. The flick of her tongue was loud, echoing through the quiet of the hallway, and though she had no reason to worry, the first thought Clara had on waking was, I hope she is okay.

When she’d arrived, Mama was sleeping—gone down for an early nap. The familiarity of low snores and the warmth of the sun streaming through the window over her shoulders enticed Clara to lean over and close her eyes. Just for a minute.

Mama was still sleeping when Miss Gertrude walked past. At first Clara wasn’t sure that she’d seen correctly, and she blinked to adjust her eyes. Snaking behind Miss Gertrude, dark and thick like a snail-trail was… something. That something was painted along the floor by the dragging hem of her too-long robe.

Clara didn’t want to get involved. She listened for the footsteps of the nurse escorting her, or somebody—anybody—to walk by, but she heard no one. She got up, her bones stiff, and she was slow to move. Clara savored the guilt as she lingered at the door frame, looking at the streak of something she didn’t want to deal with—feces?—against the floor, hesitating while repeating in her head, please, please, anyone!

But the hallway was empty, save Miss Gertrude.

Miss Gertrude had been walking fast, and she had made her way pretty far gone by the time Clara found her. Dark matted her house dress to her bottom, slid down her legs, clotted in her slippers. Hands smeared streaks against the wheeled silver pole. She held outstretched stained fingers to the empty hallway, a gesture for help, her mouth in a frenzy of clicking and clicking and clicking.

Clara slipped back into the room before she could be seen, pushed the nurse button and waited.

The nurses were efficient. Clara’d hardly blinked and Miss Gertrude’s clothes were bagged as BIOHAZARD, and the floor outside mopped clean again with WET FLOOR signs in their place. The curtain divider between Mama and her neighbor was drawn, but Clara could see the nurses, several of them, all at the foot of Miss Gertrude’s bed. Clara could see the bend of splayed knees breaking through the thick fabric plane, and she strained to hear, but found she couldn’t anything but the click, clack, click of her mouth. Clack, clack, click.

Through all of the commotion, Mama didn’t wake, didn’t move. Those blankets look thick, Clara Mae thought as the nurses scurried and clattered on the other side of the curtain. She moved them aside one by one until she realized the new ‘thickness’ was actually coming from—Mama. As she unscrolled the final yellowed blanket revealing a belly–distended, bloated and round like a pregnant woman. Her mother’s usual sagging abdomen was now swollen and taut. Suddenly Clara was aware of a nurse apologizing beside her. Should have told you. Didn’t want to upset you. Came up too fast.

Probably benign, anyway.

Clara Mae instinctively leaned forward, wrapping her arms around the womb filled with tumor, embracing the belly that had once held her inside. As she wept the tears of exhaustion, Mama stayed still in slumber, maintaining the healthy, rhythmic breathing. But not Miss Gertrude. Miss Gertrude was struggling. Miss Gertrude did not want to be in bed. Miss Gertrude wanted up.

The nurses—who knew better than to fight ol’Gertie—tried to subdue her anyway. She wanted to get up, so she got up—her garments now clean, her loins diapered. No mind for the probes and monitors and IV needles. Just got up. You need to wait for the doctor, they insisted. She either didn’t hear or ignored them. Click, clack, click. Clack, clack, click. Miss Gertrude crossed the Great Curtain Divide, and she didn’t look back. She walked over to Mama as she did so many times a day and leaned her ear over to capture the wind of her snore. Miss Gertrude placed both hands over Clara Mae’s head, holding her firm against the belly where she lay.

Then, Miss Gertrude spoke the second set of words they’d ever heard her utter.

“I lost my baby,” Miss Gertrude looked at her now-clean crotch. Was that blood before? “But Mama still has her baby.”

“Do you mean this baby?” Clara Mae said, removing The Doll from the guts of her handbag.

But Miss Gertude just laughed and laughed, an eerie lonely laugh, awkward and long, until finally wiping laugh-tears from her eyes.

“Raw Gums was a baby born of a baby,” Miss Gertrude began.

*

The day that Raw Gums came into the world was the last day their tribe saw rain.

He was the quietest baby you ever saw after that first cry. He never ate, only suckled a cloth rubbed with aloe leaf to heal his gums. As the world outside dried up, the Grandmother tended him inside. The Child-Mother (alive but unwell) spent her days in the cot next to him, waking only to eat and evacuate. The Grandmother always told visitors that the baby was quiet because HE KNEW. The quiet, she’d say, was out of respect for the mother.

     But after the company would leave, the Grandmother secretly worried. Not only was the baby quiet, but he would not take food. The daughter’s glands had dried in her illness, so after darkness the Grandmother ushered in others with milk, and when he inevitably wouldn’t take to the breast, the women would express milk themselves, releasing into a clean turtle shell. There she soaked the baby’s aloe cloth, all along praying he would get some nourishment as he suckled.

     But as the days passed, the gardens and fields got drier, and the baby got bigger. Almost…fatter. The Child-Mother recovered, cared for him, tried to make up for lost time. Once thinness had set in amongst the rest of the village—their crops now withered and fruitless—Raw Gums was twice the size of the average baby his age. The family wrapped him in giant swaddling, hiding his body, ashamed from the accusation in other’s eyes. Where might they have food hid that they had not shared?

     The Bad Things came shortly after the crops fell.

The tribe needed water, coveting the springs behind another neighboring village. Their neighbors were good people, and they gave of the water, even while sparse, even to the detriment of themselves and their children. The condition of this water was simply: peace.

     This continued for weeks and months, tense but uneventful, and water was rationed—for drinking only, this much for an adult, little less for children. It was tight, but enough for sustenance of all. In spite of this, the talk started. Could the other tribe really be trusted? What if the spring starts to dry out? The Fear had settled in among them, and the desperation blinded right thinking.

     Then the body of Elder Red Buck was found.

     There was no clear cause of death—no bruises, no blood. It looked as if he just collapsed where he stood while drinking a rare cup of water after morning work, melting to the floor, vacating his bowels. His passing was recent, but the smell of death and excrement was already knock-you-down-strong. Even so, Raw Gums was sat at his feet, lapping up precious water from the fallen cup peacefully, like a doe at a stream. As Raw Gums was returned to the worried Child-Mother, she wondered when the infant had learned to crawl.

     Then the whispers began. It was them, the villagers said. They poisoned the water. Suspicion crept into their eyes, bloodshot from dehydration, but they had to fill their bowls again. They had no water. They had no choice.

     When the body of the Chief was found, it was in a similar fashion: no outside injury or trauma, just newly limp, lips falling away from the cup of water he had been drinking. But this cup—this cup of water was from a box hidden beneath the hut floor. There were several jars still hoarded there, the box hastily opened in secret but not yet closed.

     Inside the box, next to the jars, sat Raw Gums—skin dewy with water, belly button topped off with moisture, his mouth wet, the corners bloody.

     The Child-Mother stayed inside that night, adding reed-fence to her baby’s bed and listening to the night hollers. The villagers were thirsty and mad, their children’s spindly limbs telling the story of their desperation, their pain. They had spread the Chief’s stolen water amongst the people, risking the poison they thought may be inside. But when spread amongst the village it was quarter cups, most given to the frailest of cot-ridden children—not enough to satiate. As the Child-Mother listened to the pained shoutings of betrayal, she opened her reed sack and (hidden beneath the dried gatherings) removed her own secret stash of water stolen from the neighbor spring. She turned her back on her child and drank, soothing her own stomach pains while he writhed.

Outside, through the wood and mud-plaster of the walls, voices. The Child-Mother could hear the Medicine Man saying to her mother, “They think it is the neighbors to blame for this evil. But it is not of them. The evil has come from this place. The evil lives in these walls. The children within, they are the children of vengeance. Raw Gums, he is bringing to bear the fruits that the evil have sown. Those who have stolen from the weak, from the sick, from the young, they are being met with justice. We find this baby near the deaths, always. He is overseeing this justice.

And—understand this—he is not done.”

The Grandmother would not hear of it. There were odd things about the child yes—the fact that he never really ate anything, that he was known to go missing, and the bugs—YES, the flies!—that encircled his bed, the dead, dead, dead bugs, dead from no obvious cause, just suddenly freezing in mid-air and falling, falling to the bed or the ground in an eerie ring. The Grandmother swept up the bugs, looking at the newness of his sleeping face, and thought the Elders were so wrong about her kin.

But that night, The Grandmother left the hut. The Child-Mother could hear her outside vomiting sick upon sick, water falling from her bowels in surprising amounts given how shriveled up she felt inside. Her daughter listened in anguish, her own thirst quenched. She could feel the guilt of hydration from the stolen water flow cold through her guts and into her blood. Outside her mother lay alone in leaves and sick; the life had drained from her so quickly. The Child-Mother took a blatter-jug of the stolen water to her mother’s side, holding her mother’s head and pouring the life-saving liquid in. Her mother gulped it down, her body weak, eyes blank. She left her mother there, sleeping in the leaves, with the remaining containers of water slightly open nearby, as she carried Raw Gums off into the forest midnight.

In the woods that night the Child-Mother ended the life of her baby, maternal hands wrapped around face and nose until eyes glowed petecial-red. Then, baby’s body tucked in the crook of her arms, she ate of the poisons of the forest by the handful, until finally her breath filled with vomit.

Legend has it that when her body was found, the Child-Mother’s skin was found in the mouth of Raw Gums—cleaned from her palms during the act of smothering.

The neighboring tribe found the bodies, mother and child, and looked on the tribe with fresh disgust. From that day forward, they refused use of the spring, and the dysentery spread like wildfire. The tribe begged for water, but the neighbors refused, holding up the dried and prepared head of the infant Raw Gums and proclaiming their people less than human. Raw Gums’ head was kept as a marker at the spring, tiny shrunken head fastened to the top of a wooden post, taunting them, judging in the face of beckoning death.

The entire tribe died within seven days.

“Except your mother,” Miss Gertrude finished, her hand resting on Mama’s swollen belly.

“She knew she was the last. She made her wearied way to ask for water, and they handed her this”—Miss Gertrude pulled The Doll from Clara Mae’s hands—“this doll, with the head of her kin sown to the neck, the shrunken baby head the only thing left of her tribe, the only thing left of her family, the doll of Raw Gums. Then, with no water, they sent her away to her death.”

Mama was indeed of the brink when she was found by missionaries. They took her in, proclaimed her a dark-skinned Dutch child they adopted, Baptized her. As she grew, she let go of her braids and topknot, she let go of her language, she let go of her memories of family. But she never let go of The Doll.

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